Neither a thriller nor an epic: 'Ahalya' is a tale of morality from house of Sujoy Ghosh

Rajyasree Sen

Jul 23, 2015 10:20:05 IST

When everyone on social media – especially Twitter starts tweeting about Ahalya and Goutam Maharishi, you can’t be blamed for thinking that the bhakts have found a new topic of discussion. Much to my surprise though, this time around, the art film aficionados were the ones tweeting furiously about the two characters from the Ramayana. Why? Because they have been given new life in a "thriller" by Sujoy Ghosh (of Kahaani and Aladin fame).

I'm all for directors or authors revisiting old novels or myths and epics and creating modern cinema or literature around those characters and stories. Gone are the days of kids reading Amar Chitra Katha, which at least helped those of us who didn’t like reading tomes to familiarise ourselves with classics and epics.

Recently, Anurag Basu directed Chokher Bali for Epic Channel’s Stories By Rabindranath Tagore. Like in Ghosh’s Ahalya, Radhika Apte — the go-to “bold” actress of the moment — played Binodini. Of course, Basu’s Binodini, as depicted by Apte, would have been stoned or simply ostracised in early 20th century Bengal, even in the most progressive homes. Some gratuitous nudity is always good for TRPs, but it should make sense for the character as well. Apte was shown wearing saris without blouses, which seems to make historical sense until you’re shown her entire bare back. Keeping in mind the period the film is set in, this would never have happened and simply distracts from what was quite a nice re-telling of the book. However, Apte does have a nice toned back, so maybe Basu felt flashing it now and then wouldn't hurt.

Neither a thriller nor an epic: Ahalya is a tale of morality from house of Sujoy Ghosh

YouTube screengrab.

Sujoy Ghosh’s new short film – also starring Apte as a seductress - is part of a series sponsored by Royal Stag whisky, called "Large Short Films". Of course the promotion of indie short films is a PR move for Royal Stag, but you’ve got to give them credit for encouraging and funding this genre since Indian short films are starved of attention and viewership otherwise.

The tagline of the 14-minute film is “Sujoy Ghosh's Epic Thriller ‘Ahalya’”. Is it an epic thriller? It is a fable from the epics, for sure. If you aren’t familiar with mythology, you would just watch this as a suspense thriller. If you are, you’ll notice resemblances to the myth of Gautam Maharishi’s wife Ahalya, who was seduced by Indra after he appeared disguised to look like the Maharishi. The epic versions all maintain Ahalya was oblivious to Indra’s deception, though in a few of the retellings, there’s definitely doubt cast upon Ahalya’s innocence. The cuckolded Maharishi catches Ahalya and Indra. He turns her into stone and covers Indra (who has now transformed himself into a cat) with 1,000 vulva (temporarily). Ahalya is released from the curse only when Ram’s toe touches the cursed stone that is post-curse Ahalya.

Lesson: Adulteresses deserve no sympathy and since they have hearts of stone, will be turned into stone themselves. Only divine intervention can be their salvation.

Ghosh must be given credit for being creative and turning the tale upside down and borrowing motifs from it to tell a new story. His film is set in today’s Kolkata and begins with a policeman called Indra Sen (the delightfully-named Tota Roy Chowdhury) ringing the doorbell of one of those heritage houses that novelist and nostalgist Amit Chaudhuri is hoping will not be sold to promoters.

The house is owned by Soumitra Chatterjee, who is Goutam Sadhu, an artist who makes life-like figurines. His wife’s name is Ahalya (Radhika Apte), and she is the one who opens the front door, wearing a negligee – as we were all encouraged to do. Ahalya spends the duration of the film looking seductively at the cop and her husband, sometimes both at the same time.

In the drawing room are some of Sadhu’s dolls — about six inches tall, all of them men. The visiting cop notices that one of them looks like the man whose disappearance he’s investigating. Also in Sadhu’s living room is a stone, which Sadhu says has magical powers. It can transform the appearance of the person who touches it and they can become anyone they want. (I never said the use of the motifs was subtle.) When the cop asks Sadhu about the missing man, Sadhu says that he had come to Sadhu’s house to model for one of the dolls. Perhaps, suggests Sadhu, he picked up the stone, changed his identity and disappeared?

Noting the policeman’s incredulity, Sadhu asks him to try it for himself. He hands his wife’s mobile phone and the stone to Indra, and dares him to go take the phone to his wife, pretending to be Sadhu. When Indra does so, he looks at his reflection in a mirror and realises he has become Sadhu. Following which Apte pulls him onto the bed and demands sex. As all bored housewives who are 60 years younger than their husbands are known to do. Indra gives in — naturally — and what follows is the “thrilling” part. Suffice to say, a doll and a fall is involved.

As an aside, why is Apte – who’s not a bad actress at all – getting typecast as the seductress who either wears few clothes or removes the clothes she’s wearing? I’m sure there are other roles for her to do. I fail to believe that you need to be at your expose-ive best to make a dent in Hindi films today. And of course no one is forcing Apte to act in these roles. So why reduce yourself to playing only bawdy characters or “confident” women – whose confidence must be depicted by their lack of clothing? Because instead of showing a finger to Bollywood, she’s only falling into the very objectification trap which actresses have only lately managed to get out of with great difficulty. Counter-productive, I’d say.

If you haven’t seen Ahalya yet, then proceed with caution. Here there be spoilers.

The main difference in Ghosh’s telling of the tale is that Goutam Sadhu, aka the Maharishi, is not the cuckold. He’s the schemer and Ahalya is his co-conspirator. Poor (hotty) Indra is the one being fooled here. Sadhu encourages Indra’s lust and sends him to Ahalya, only to turn him into a doll carved of rock – a rather extreme punishment for a spot of adultery, that too engaged in under some degree of duress. Ahalya is complicit in the entire drama.

You predict the end of the film within minutes of it starting. While it didn’t thrill me in the least, it did come across as an advertisement for marriage - an unbreakable bond, especially for scheming couples. Ahalya is almost a testament to marriage and a warning to people who try to trespass where they shouldn’t or don’t know how to say no to temptation. A tale of morality from the house of Sujoy Ghosh.

There are two moments which I loved for different reasons. One, where Indra Sen/ Tota says that he’s not very familiar with the Ramayana but knows “the basic storyline”. Which is the case for most of us. And the other when Sadhu, explaining why he thinks Ahalya should leave him, says, “it’s not like I’m very good in bed”. Watching Soumitra Chatterjee, bhadralok and thespian extraordinaire, make this statement and then follow it up by pimping out his wife, made me age a few years. But it was memorable.

The characters – other than Roy Chowdhury’s – aren’t very believable. Chatterjee’s Randy Geriatric Raju act and Apte’s seductress in Kolkata are difficult to swallow. The moral of the story is that rishis are never innocent and you should never trust a woman who opens the front door of a Kolkata heritage home in her negligee. Or a couple who keep Ken dolls in their living room. Insightful to some, perhaps, but not a thriller.

Still, it’s nice to see this interest in our classics and our epics. And I must give Ghosh an A for Effort for making all us viewers re-read the Ahalya tale again. If the only benefit of watching average cinema and Apte playing seductress (yet again) is to make us reacquaint ourselves with our literature, I’m all for it.

Updated Date: Jul 23, 2015 10:20:05 IST